By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: My heart is full.
Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Joanne Woodward) is a single-mother raising two girls while living in the poor side of Staten Island. She is an extremely self-centered, emotionally frail woman who’s bitter about life and alienates everyone that she meets. Ruth (Roberta Wallach) is her rebellious teenage daughter who recognizes her mother’s flawed personality and tries to distance herself from her. Matilda (Nell Potts) is the quiet, introspective daughter who takes in all the chaos while escaping by concentrating on her school science projects particularly the one involving marigolds, but as things progress Beatrice’s mental state becomes more erratic and threatens to tear their lives completely apart.
Actor Paul Newman directs on a tour-de-force level. Absolutely everything comes together while still keeping it on a subtle, visual level. The opening sequences gives the viewer a clear picture of the family’s strife and divergent personalities without ever having to go into any type of verbal backstory, which is great filmmaking at its finest. Although filmed in Bridgeport, Connecticut one still gets a good feeling of a poor inner-city neighborhood with the house that was chosen for the setting looking authentically cluttered without appearing staged. The variety of settings has a cinema verite feel while also remaining true to Paul Zindel’s script. Yet Newman’s greatest achievement is the fact that he creates a wholly unlikable main character that the viewer ends up still feeling quite sorry for and the climactic scene inside the school’s auditorium becomes emotionally wrenching.
Woodward excels in a difficult role and creates a character that becomes permanently etched in the viewer’s mind. Her brilliance comes through from the very beginning with the way she chews her gum while trying on some wigs and her never ending stream of caustic remarks runs the gamut of being rude and insensitive to darkly humorous. Although she was nominated for best actress with the Golden Globes and won the award at the Cannes for her work here she really should have been given the Academy Award as well.
Wallach, who is the daughter of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, is terrific in her film debut and has some memorable moments not only when she has a seizure, but also later when she plays a caricature of her mother for a school play. Potts, who is Newman’s and Woodward’s daughter, is quite good too especially with her stunning clear blue eyes and facial expressions.
Judith Lowry, who made a name for herself in her later years playing cantankerous old ladies, is outstanding as an old woman who rents a room from Beatrice. Although she frustratingly never says a word her moments are still unforgettable especially with the way Newman focuses on her wrinkled face and toothless mouth as she sips drinks or even hobbles her way to the bathroom.
Zindel’s story was originally a stage play and in fact Carolyn Coates who is cast as Mrs. McKay here played the Beatrice role in one of the stage versions. Most teenagers from the 70’s and 80’s will recognize Paul Zindel’s name as the author of ‘Pigman’, which was required reading in many high schools during that era. Yet I liked this story, which is based loosely on his experiences while growing up, even better and it’s a real shock that it has never been released on an American DVD as it definitely should be!
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: December 20, 1972
Runtime: 1Hour 40Minutes
Director: Paul Newman
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Available: DVD (Region 2)